The right to life of climate deniers, children in poverty, and future generations

Richard Parncutt 

February 2017, revised January 2018
This text has not been proof-read and may contain errors.

Further information in German: link
Another text about the death penalty: link

rp

The title of my deleted 2012 blog was a question: "Death penalty for global warming deniers?" The question was obviously inappropriate and the answer was obviously "No". The death penalty is never justified, and I explained why as follows:

I have always been opposed to the death penalty in all cases, and I have always supported the clear and consistent stand of Amnesty International on this issue. The death penalty is barbaric, racist, expensive, and is often applied by mistake. Apparently, it does not even act as a deterrent to would-be murderers. Hopefully, the USA and China will come to their senses soon.

Even mass murderers should not be executed, in my opinion. Consider the politically motivated murder of 77 people in Norway in 2011. Of course the murderer does not deserve to live, and there is not the slightest doubt that he is guilty. But if the Norwegian government killed him, that would just increase the number of dead to 78. It would not bring the dead back to life. In fact, it would not achieve anything positive at all. I respect the families and friends of the victims if they feel differently about that. I am simply presenting what seems to me to be a logical argument.

I had chosen a provocative title and taken a personal risk to attract attention to a series of critically important issues that were evidently being suppressed. How many deaths will climate change cause, especially in developing countries? Who will be held responsible? What will be the legal consequences? Today, little has changed. How much longer do we have to wait for the right to life of a billion people in developing countries to be taken seriously?

I later realised that I had intuitively applied a series of known techniques for attracting attention with headings (more). My heading was short, concise, and understandable out of context. It started with powerful keywords, addressed important current issues, asked a question, excited curiosity, and both surprised and frightened the reader. I later realised that many people read no further than the heading. In fact, some do not even read to the end of a heading, which in this case was a question mark. We live and learn.

I deleted and apologized for the blog as soon as the first complaints started to arrive just before Christmas 2012. I did so not only because of the wild, crazy accusations of the deniers, but also because of the ambiguous response from some of the smart, caring people whom I had expected to support me. Evidently, the world was not yet ready for this kind of truth.

The deletion was in vain. The blog was discovered in Google Cache and posted against my will at a new address. That's how I learned that "the internet never forgets". The sensational reactions that followed in the media and climate denial blogs referred exclusively to a text that had been withdrawn and deleted.

Since then, there have been many misleading interpretations. Allow me to
set the record straight.

My intention

My only intention was and still is to promote and protect human rights. For a billion people in developing countries, climate change is life threatening. It is also racist, because it will affect black people more than white, although it is being caused by white people more than black. It will affect women more than men and children more than adults, making it sexist and agist. Climate change is today's biggest human rights issue, because it will affect more people than any other category of human-rights violation.

Human rights are universal. The right to life is obviously the most important right; this point is unfortunately missing from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948), presumably due to an ambiguity about the death penalty that remains to this day. What is clear is that everyone has the right to life, rich or poor, black or white, adult or child, man or woman, guilty or innocent. Influential climate deniers have the same right to life as the children currently living in poverty in developing countries whose future lives could be destroyed by climate change. 

My contentious blog was inspired by a decade-long academic project that I founded and led. The aim of the project was to reduce
racism and xenophobia by applying insights and findings from research in contrasting academic disciplines and collaborating with practitioners in NGOs, government, education and so on. The project culminated in an international conference that inspired a second conference and diverse later projects.

What does the death penalty have to do with it?

Climate change is effectively putting a billion future people on death row. The number one billion is a rough, order-of-magnitude estimate. It comprises
hundreds of millions of children who are alive right now in developing countries and further hundreds of millions who will be born in coming decades. These people will die early (as infants, children or young adults) with a certain (high) probability as a result one or more of the known side-effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, freak storms, changing precipitation patterns, disappearing glaciers affecting water supplies, ocean acidification, more frequent bushfires, loss of biodiversity and so on. The list is long. Many of these side effects will reduce food supplies, causing famines.

Prisoners on death row find themselves in a similar situation. It is not certain that they will die, because their
sentence could be commuted to life imprisonment. They will be executed with a certain probability. The uncertainty is a cruel aspect of an archaic form of punishment. US prisoners on death row typically wait for ten years (more). Similarly, many people in climate-vulnerable countries such as Bangladesh (and many other developing countries) are waiting for the day when they become climate refugees, not knowing where if anywhere they will live in future, or if they will survive the journey.

I am totally opposed to the death penalty for the usual, well-known reasons. One reason is inconsistency. The death penalty is supposed to be a response to the most serious crimes, but the most serious crimes are not even recognized as such, let alone punished. From a human rights perspective, the biggest crime of all is to indirectly cause the deaths of an enormous number of people.
That happens frighteningly often, and I offered a series of examples in my 2012 blog. Enormous numbers of lives could be saved by appropriately punishing (or threatening to punish) the culprits. But the death penalty is almost always applied to people whose crimes are much smaller.

My theoretical proposal to limit the death penalty to individuals causing a million deaths, if adopted universally, would mean the release of all prisoners currently on death row in all countries -- consistent with my long personal history of anti-death-penalty activism as a member of Amnesty International. This proposal additionally exposed the hypocrisy of death-penalty supporters who are also climate deniers, including many "Christian" supporters of the US Republican Party. Perhaps it would help if they realised that Jesus was a victim of the death penalty?

My proposal could never be implemented, of course. I
nfluential death-penalty candidates can generally save themselves by pulling strings in the background. It is unfortunately not true that "everyone is equal before the law", but we must nevertheless strive for legal equality. 

The idea of the "death penalty for the pope" was obviously absurd. I included it in my text only in passing, as an explanatory counterexample.
It exposed the contradiction that is inherent in the opinions of death-penalty supporters: if the death penalty is appopriate for the most serious crimes, what are those crimes exactly? Thinking, feeling readers nevertheless recognized another, more serious intention: to provoke a long-overdue public discussion about the human-rights implications of the Catholic condom ban. If not for that, millions of AIDS victims would still be alive today. Tragically, neither the church nor the general public has found the courage to talk about this openly and honestly. Denial is not the answer. The ban is presumably still indirectly causing thousands of AIDS deaths every year. The Wikipedia page on this topic is informative but biased, because so few people have the courage to defend the rights of the victims. This is religious hypocrisy at his worst: preaching universal love while at the same time indirectly causing massive suffering and death. Christians should read their Bibles, which incidentally say nothing at all about contraception but a lot about moral courage and avoiding hypocrisy (more), and imagine what Jesus would say about the condom ban if he was here today. Incidentally, I am neither anti-religious nor anti-Catholic. On the contrary, my best friends and colleagues tend to have an altruistic orientation and for that reason have always included Christians. In recent years, Pope Francis has been defending the rights of the poor and opposing climate change at the highest level, for which he deserves everyone's admiration and support.

My main aim and approach

The main intention of my text was to provoke a discussion of a problem that,
from an objective human-rights perspective, is potentially the world's most serious. In coming decades, anthropogenic climate change will surely mean premature death for hundreds of millions of people. To prevent that, we need to identify the people who are primarily responsible and force them to change their behavior, unless they are kind enough to change voluntarily. Of course there are other possible strategies, but to solve a problem of this magnitude, we must focus on the most effective one.

Unfortunately, my text
failed to provoke that discussion, although many people presumably realised the deadly consequences of climate denial for the first time. As climate change gets more serious, the probability is increasing that the most important issues will finally be taken seriously. But a serious discussion will not begin until a large number of influential people finally have the courage to address the problem directly and publicly. That has not happened yet, and although there are promising signs, we are still a long way off. We will have to admit clearly and openly that we are killing enormous numbers of future people with our emissions (more), using the word "kill" the everyday sense of ending someone's life.

Needless to say, I did not "call for the death penalty“ for anyone, as some media and climate blogs enthusiastically claimed, as if they did not know the difference between a question mark and an exclamation mark. Instead, I presented ideas and arguments.
My obvious intention was promote human rights by provoking public discussion about what may be the modern world's most serious problem(s). I clarified that "I am neither a politician nor a lawyer. I am just thinking aloud about an important problem".

I repeatedly used the word "propose" or "proposal“, implying an invitation to discuss. This intention was correctly recognized by Austria Presse Agentur (link). My text also included the following disclaimer: "Please note that I am not directly suggesting that the threat of execution be carried out. I am simply presenting a logical argument." Many sensation-seeking commentators appear to have read these sentences and decided to ignore them.

Three premises, one conclusion

The argument that I presented in 2012 can be interpreted in different ways. One approach is to consider the logical relationship between premises and conclusion. Consider the following premises:

Premise 1. About half of the people in the world still consider the death penalty to be justified for the most serious crimes. We know this from surveys; the exact proportion depends on how you ask the question. Changing their minds is one of today's great challenges.

Premise 2. The most serious crimes are those in which one person knowingly causes enormous numbers of deaths. This should be obvious from a human rights perspective, in which every life has the same value. One could also estimate the amount of suffering or the number of (quality) life-years lost, but that would not significantly change the present argument. 

Premise 3. The most influential climate deniers are causing or have caused enormous numbers of future deaths. Those deaths will occur, for example, as the future death toll in connection with poverty in developing countries rises in response to multiple side-effects of climate change. Deniers cause future deaths by hindering projects that would otherwise slow climate change. Many people reject this logic, of course, and many others have not thought about it. To my knowledge, the arguments I presented here and here are basically correct, although the details could be improved. I have been trying in vain for years to discover valid counterarguments. My claims satisfy the scientific criterion of falsifiability, but no one seems able to falsify them.

If all three premises are true, then for those people who (erroneously) believe in the death penalty for the most serious crimes (premise 1), "death penalty for climate deniers" is merely a logical conclusion. Needless to say, I am opposed to this conclusion, because I am opposed to premise 1. In general, the conclusion can be changed if we change any one of the three premises.

Changing premise 1 means convincing death penalty supporters that the death penalty is never justified. That is the aim of anything that I have ever written about the death penalty. The outraged public reaction to my 2012 blog suggested that I made some progress. First, many climate deniers realized that the death penalty is never justified, after imagining being candidates themselves. Second, others who normally never mention human rights suddenly started to talk about them.

I don’t believe premise 2 can be changed. From a human rights perspective, it is obviously correct, and I am not aware of any other reasonable perspective.

Nor do I believe premise 3 can be changed. The deniers will continue to deny the causal connections, of course. Their behavior is complex and resists a simple explanation. According to psychological theory of moral development, some of them are immature (selfish, dishonest, opportunist, irresponsible). Others may be gullible or lacking in skills of critical thinking. In any case, the law should expose and punish such profound examples of irresponsibility, to protect the rights of others.

However hard they try, the deniers cannot change the logical relationship between the above conclusion and premises. I did not create this relationship. I could cite literature to demonstrate that all elements of the argument existed in advance. I merely put together the pieces of the jigsaw, and then found the courage to defend the right to life of a billion people.

Right now, hardly anyone is showing that courage, so things can only improve. Please join me.

Limiting the death penalty as a step toward ending it (more)

Since I became aware of the legal and ethical problems surrounding the death penalty in the 1980s, I have opposed it unconditionally. Since the 1990s, I have been a member of Amnesty International, first in the UK and then in Austria. During that time, I have participated in countless urgent actions and letter writing campaigns to stop the death penalty -- both in specific cases and universally. From 1999 to 2010 my yearly donation to Amnesty Austria was €87,20 (converted from Austrian shillings), and since 2011, I have donated €100 Euros per year.

Amnesty is more important today than ever. We need your support. Please consider a yearly donation. 

In my scandalous blog, I proposed limiting the death penalty to people who cause a million deaths.
That was the main point and my whole text revolved around it. The idea was to attract attention to the massive human cost of climate change. A billion human lives are on the line.

But there was an interesting twist. If such a proposal were accepted internationally, the result would probably be what we anti-death-penalty activists have been working toward for decades: the total end of the death penalty. First, all
criminals on death row in all countries would be saved. Second, faced with the possible consequences of implementing the new agreement, even hard-core death-penalty supporters would change their minds. The penny would finally drop.

Another penny might drop, too. People might finally realise that for political reasons the death penalty can never be applied according to the legal principle of proportionality in criminal law -- the idea that the size of a punishment should reflect the size of the crime. It would become clear that there are people in our midst who knowingly but indirectly cause enormous numbers of deaths, but are never prosecuted. Others are executed for smaller crimes such as murder (of one person), drug trafficking, rape, blasphemy, treason, and so on. If the death penalty is not being applied proportionally, it should not be applied at all.

The idea
of limiting the death penalty to people who cause a million deaths was based on two principles: proportionality in criminal law, and the equal value of every human life. Both principles are accepted quasi-universally, so logically their combination should also be universally accepted. The only open question is the size of the number one million, which of course is arbitrary.

This kind of thinking can explain 
why the death penalty is still seriously proposed as a punishment for genocide by some legal scholars (more). What exactly they think the death penalty will achieve in this or any other case is unclear, but they somehow consider it to be "legitimate".

In a legal context, it would be practically impossible to accuse a climate denier of causing a million deaths. Attribution would be very difficult. There are too many uncertainties surrounding the future of global climate, the (social/political) causal connection between climate denial and emissions, and the (physical) causal connection between emissions and climate change. In this scenario, the accused would always be able to argue that the proposed connections are too uncertain. They could get around arguments based on risk assessment theory, because there is little precedent for such quantitative arguments in law. All of this would happen as if the hundreds of millions of victims of global warming did not exist.

The world's biggest problem

Global warming could cause a billion deaths over a period of a century. The death penalty could cause a hundred thousand deaths in the same period. If that is true, global warming is ten thousand times more serious than the death penalty, assuming that every life has the same value. Global warming should therefore receive ten thousand times more attention than the death penalty. 

Climate change caused by our emissions is effectively killing some ten million future people every year. For those who have been following the public discourse about climate change and poverty, this is hardly a surprising claim. The surprising thing is that almost nobody is talking about these future deaths, although objectively speaking they could be the world's biggest problem and much more important than the economic or even the ecological consequences of climate change.
Another surprising thing is that published estimates of future death tolls are usually either underestimated or suppressed (and hence unknown).

The foundations for a rational discussion are in place. Most people agree that human lives are the most important value that we have and every human life has the same value. Most people also agree that people are more important than money (even if their actions suggest a different attitude). All we need do is apply these moral foundations to our present situation, and consider the implications. It should be easy.

The reason for our silence might be guilt. Just about everyone in rich countries is guilty of contributing more than their fair share to climate change. That includes the climate researchers. None of us want to admit our guilt. But if we don't, we won't solve the problem.

The response to my text

My 2012 blog exposed the massive guilt of climate deniers. They reacted by applying their carefully acquired skills in truth distortion, combining cyberbullying with victim blaming. Their attempt to make me look guilty and evil was a strategy to divert attention from their own guilt and malice. Well, they can try as hard as they like to ruin my reputation, but I am not about to give up defending the fundamental rights of a billion people. 

The uproar that followed the discovery of my scandalous text was surprising when you consider that I had presented an idea that most people in the world, and even most people in liberal Western Europe, would immediately agree with: to limit the death penalty to people who cause enormous numbers of deaths. I merely considered the implications, asking which people in the world might be candidates if the death penalty were limited in this way.

Readers were as shocked as I was by my conclusions. But it was my intention to shock, in the hope that the world's most important problems would at last be taken seriously. Wake up, world. Hopefully, many people realised (perhaps even for the first time) that (i) influential climate denial is the most important social and political force behind climate change, (ii) climate change will probably indirectly kill hundreds of millions of people, if not billions, and (iii) the death penalty is never justified.  
A new formulation of this argument can be found here.

People expected me to defend myself.
I was reluctant to do so, because the right to life of hundreds of millions of children in developing countries is obviously more important than my reputation. If I was going to defend anything, it was the basic rights of an enormous number of people. That is also what my self-righteous critics should have done -- and should still be doing.

Instead, and in the midst of what I later learned was a "shitstorm", I apologized. In retrospect, that was inappropriate. How can one apologize for defending the right to life of a billion people?

I should have publicly explained how and why so many people had misunderstood my text -- either deliberately or accidentally. Perhaps like this:
As I wrote near the start of my original text (GW = global warming):

Even without GW (or ignoring the small amount that has happened so far), a billion people are living in poverty right now. Every five seconds a child is dying of hunger (more).The United Nations and diverse NGOs are trying to solve this problem, and making some progress. But political forces in the other direction are stronger. The strongest of these political forces is GW denial.

False accusations

I was accused of a shopping list of things that I never did. I should have expected that. I was criticizing deniers, and lying is what they do for a living -- on behalf of, and funded by, the rich fossil fuel industry. Besides, I can hardly accuse the deniers of exaggerating when I did so myself.

German speakers -- even those who read and speak English fluently -- seemed to misunderstand the word "propose", which I used several times. They confused it with "suggest", "call for", or even "demand". None of these words corresponds exactly to German terms such as anregen, vorschlagen, or fordern. When I "proposed" limiting the death penalty to criminals who cause a million deaths, which would save all criminals currently on death row anywhere, my intention was to put an idea out there that can be discussed (French: pro + poser); the German equivalent is zur Diskussion stellen. When an academic writes a "research proposal", she is not telling a grant agency what to do, but offering some interesting ideas and claiming that they have potential.
A "marriage proposal" is not coercive -- the other is free to accept or reject it. When a cook "proposes" a new desert, you don't have to eat it.

I did not "call for" anything. Instead, I drew attention to some of the world's most serious neglected problems. The title of my text was a question, and the text itself mainly took the form of an argument. Consider the following claims:

1. Probably every second person in the world supports the death penalty for the most serious crimes.

2. If our value system is based on the equal value of every human life, t
he most serious crimes are probably those that cause the largest numbers of deaths.

3. Global warming will probably cause hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of deaths. We, the people causing the emissions, are effectively putting those people on death row. Like real prisoners on real death rows, they will die prematurely with a certain probability. These people are alive right now -- as children.


4. Influential climate denial is probably the biggest social and political force behind climate change. Without the denial, the problem would probably be under control by now.
All four points include the word "probably" because much about this argument is uncertain. But arguments are normally uncertain (otherwise there would be no need to argue) and the uncertainty does not change the fact that the lives of a billion people are threatened. That is a fact, so the word "probably" is not necessary.

Rather than "calling for" something, I presented and discussed these crucial issues and considered their connections and implications, while at the same time emphasizing that I am opposed to the death penalty in all cases. I invited people to talk about taboo topics, which can explain the contradictory responses to my text: people are generally reluctant to talk about points 1 and 2, and usually refuse to talk about 3 and 4. But the problems will not be solved until we emerge from our denial and start to talk about them.

Climate deniers and the media gleefully reported that I had "called for" the death penalty for certain people. The motivation behind this lie was ultimately financial. Deniers make money out of their links to the fossil fuel industry; part of their "job" is to destroy the reputations of their opponents. The media make money out of sensationalism.

In fact, I was drawing attention to the right to life of a billion people -- children living right now in developing countries, as well as future generations. It is even moreimportant to promote their rights than it is to end the death penalty, because they are so much more numerous. Imagine this: if China continued to secretly execute a thousand people per year for a century, the result would be 100 000 preventable deaths. But global warming is likely to indirectly cause a billion deaths over the course of a century. From this we may conclude, basing our argument on the equal value of every human life, that the problem of global warming is 10 000 times bigger than the problem of the death penalty. Although deaths in connection with climate change are not intended, the two cases are similar in that we know that we are causing the deaths, and we are capable of preventing them. In summary, we can say that both projects -- stopping the death penalty and stopping global warming -- are enormously important. But given the limited resources of those who care about these problems, we also have to consider priorities and should therefore channel more resources into the climate problem.


Context

My statement was not out of the blue. During the previous decade, I had been coming increasingly aware of a basic ethical problem. What is more important to me personally -
- the basic rights of a billion children in developing countries, or my personal well-being? If I had a chance to promote their rights, but only by risking my well-being, would I do it? Hopefully I am not the only one asking that question.

From 2000 to 2010, I was
politically active in the area of interculturality and anti-racism, culminating in an international conference (cAIR10). But I can only do this work of this kind in my limited spare time. So I decided to try to identify today's most important issues on focus on them (more). If human lives are the foundation of our value system and every human life is equally valuable, the problem of child mortality is evenmore serious than everyday racism. Every day, over 10 000 children die unnecessarily in developing countries, mostly from hunger. Over ten thousand children, every day. Every single death is a tragedy.

In the rich countries, we are living our lives as if this is not happening. This "poverty denial" is comparable with climate denial. The good news is that the preventable child mortality rate has been falling, slowly but surely, for decades. The bad news is that climate change will make it increase again and could double it by the end of the century. This approximate prediction follows directly from common knowledge about physical, social and political aspects of the situation. But almost everyone is ignoring the future death toll in connection with climate change. We are quietly refusing to consider the number of people that will probably suffer and die as a result. Instead we are talking about other aspects of climate change -- or avoiding the topic altogether.


What I did not know in 2012, as I wrote my scandalous text, was that climate deniers already had a lot of experience harassing leading climate scientists (more). After discovering my text, they jumped at the chance to add me to their list, which I guess could be interpreted as a compliment.

For those who want to read my original text, it is linked to my wiki pages. I am reluctant to recommend it, because a few passages should never have been written, and I was unable to change them. Nor could
I delete the text from the internet, because after I deleted it, someone found it in Google Cache and published it elsewhere against my will. From this I learned that the internet never forgets. Later, I realised that the text itself (warts and all) is my best defence against the nonsense that has been written about it, so perhaps it is just as well that it can still be found.

The right to life of a billion people

The
death penalty was not the main theme of my statement. It was merely a hook to attact attention. My main aim -- and I made it clear from the start, and emphasized it repeatedly -- was to defend the basic rights of a billion future victims of global warming. Our emissions are putting these people on death row. Their rights are being ignored, as if they did not exist.

The number one billion may seem like an exaggeration. I do not believe that it is, as I will explain. But even if it is, the precautionary principle suggests that we would still be talking about the biggest problem in today's world.

If human emissions suddenly stopped, the earth's temperature would continue to rise for a few decades, causing hundreds of millions of future deaths -- spread out across a few or several decades. Assuming that climate denial is the main reason why the fossil fuel industry was not suppressed decades ago, as it should have been according to the science at the time, it follows that climate denial has indirectly caused hundreds of millions of deaths. If we combine modern research on climate change with knowledge about global agriculture, maintenance of fresh water supplies, population growth, international migration, and the causes of conflict and violence, we can predict with reasonable confidence that roughly one billion people will die prematurely later this century as an indirect result of the human emissions that are currently in the atmosphere.

If this estimate can be criticized, it is only because it is so approximate. It is no more than an order of magnitude. We need to imagine a world whose population has reached 10 billion and whose resources are increasingly limited. The amount of food and fresh water will probably still be enough for the whole world, as it is today. But limitations due to transport, politics, and conflict will mean that large regions will not have enough food or water for long periods. These will usually be the poorer and/or warmer regions. Agriculture will be severely limited by changing weather, freak storms, pollution, water shortages in dry areas, floods in wet areas, rising sea levels (salination of previously fertile land), and species extinction. Fishing will be limited by increasing acidity and reduced oxygen in sea water and pollution. Some scientists are predicting massive species extinction both on land and in the seas -- as many as half of all species could be extinct in a century. The resultant loss of biodiversity will drastically affect food production. In addition, fresh water supplies will be limited by drought, deglaciation, and water wars. This will cause and exacerbate fatal diseases, and expand the affected geographic areas.

Climate change feedback is a vicious cycle that increases global warming without any additional human input. It involves methane release from the arctic, permafrost, and hydrates; rainforest drying and forest fires; desertification; cloud feedback; and ice-albedo feedback. If we ignore such feedback effects and consider only anthropogenic warming, current political and climatic trends suggest that a few hundred million people will die in connection with climate change toward the end of this century. If we also consider climate change feedback, the likely total death toll rises to billions -- perhaps a third of the world's population. These are reasonable estimates when one considers the entire ecosystem of the earth, its obvious limitations, the growing human population, and physical and political limitations on human mobility. The fact that we are talking about the worst human tragedy ever does not make the prediction any less valid.

If the size of a crime is proportional to the number of people who die as a result, as I argued, global warming will be the worst crime ever in human history. It will also be the worst ever case of racism, because "race" is evidently the reason why we are ignoring the rights of those who are likely to die or suffer the most. If the main predicted victims of global warming were white, we would have done much more to solve the problem by now.

Geo-engineering solutions are possible, but so far no-one has a feasible plan to remove such enormous amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases from the atmophere. The probability of discovering a miraculous technological or biological fix is not high. The most likely scenario is that the predicted warming will happen. Every decade from now until 2100, the situation will get steadily worse.

How did it come to this? If we look carefully at the social and political context of the past few decades, in which annual global emissions rose steadily from year to year at the same time as climate scientists were warning of the consequences, we can see who carries the most responsibility for this ominous development (more). The most influential climate deniers have always had full access to the predictions of the best climate science, and even if they didn't, the basic principles can be understood by any child. Greenhouse gases are like blankets in the earth's atmosphere, and if you put more blankets on your bed, it will get warmer.

If we were serious about defending the basic rights of children in developing countries, we would be identifying most influential climate deniers of the past few decades and
charging them with systematically impeding projects to slow global warming (more) and thereby save millions of future lives. The legal proceedings would be happening either within their own countries (more) or internationally (more). But hardly anyone has the courage to talk about this, it seems. We are not taking the rights of a billion children seriously. The right of a multinational cooperation to make a profit is being treated as more important than the right of a billion children to live to a reasonable age and enjoy a reasonable quality of life. What could be more shocking than that?

Given the extreme urgency of these issues, unconventional literary forms are justified. My 2012 text did not hurt anyone, but evidently thousands of people (millions, for all I know) realised for the first time that climate change is not only about polar bears -- it is a matter of life and death for untold millions of people. If my text indirectly reduced
by 0.1% the probability that a billion people will die prematurely as a result of global warming, it effectively saved a million lives. If my text reduced that probability by 0.0001%, it effectively saved a thousand lives. These are not wild claims; they are true statements that follow directly from risk assessment theory. They don't make me a hero, but they do serve to underline the seriousness of the problem.

It is still possible to limit the damage. The global energy revolution is finally happening. But if we are effectively killing a future person every time we burn a thousand tons of fossil carbon (more), and if we are serious about defending the basic rights of every human being on the planet, the revolution should be happening much faster than was agreed in Paris.

To enable a fast transition to sustainable energy, we urgently need legal procedures to prevent influential climate denial. A legal approach based on human rights is possible and realistic. If Holocaust denial can be made illegal, so can climate denial.
A legal foundation to protect the rights of children in developing countries already exists, namely the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is widely respected and partially implemented in many different ways in many national legal systems.

As I wrote in my 2012 text:

This page is inspired by the project Establishing Crimes Against Future Generations by the World Future Council. Please support the work of the World Future Council!

A thought experiment

At the end of 2012, I guess some 200 people objected publicly to my text, claiming or assuming incorrectly that I had “called for” the death penalty for influential climate deniers. Perhaps half of them contributed to internet blogs and the other half wrote emails.

Imagine what would have happened if those 200 people had actually read my statement -- not just the title, omitting the question mark, but the whole thing. What if they had actually thought about it and understood what it was really about? Imagine those 200 light bulbs lighting up. Those 200 pennies finally dropping.

Now imagine those 200 people apologizing for their previous postings or emails and instead objecting publicly to the future premature deaths of a billion people in developing countries. Imagine them explaining the indirect causal role of influential climate deniers, but also of all residents of richer countries, in those future deaths. Imagine those 200 people understanding how we, every day, take advantage of an unfair global economic system, and on top of that emit too much greenhouse gas, and how that makes us responsible for the present and future avoidable death toll in developing countries. 

If that is hard to imagine, let's instead try to imagine just ten of those people objecting publicly to the mega-fatal future consequences of climate denial. Still hard to imagine? Perhaps just one person? This line of thought raises an interesting question: Does anyone at all care enough about this to be honest about it? Does anyone have the courage to break the ice? Or have we all secretly agreed in some kind of global conspiracy to avoid talking publicly about our guilt? 

From this brief analysis, and regarding my 2012 text as a kind of social experiment, designed to find out who if anyone has seriously considered these issues, we can now formulate our conclusions. Many people consider the life of an influential climate denier to be roughly a million times more important than the life of a person living in poverty in a developing country whose life will be shortened as a result of climate denial. A million times! We know this because most participants in the public discussion of my text were more unhappy about the possible death of an influential climate denier than the million deaths that that person apparently caused. In fact, the million victims were not even mentioned.

Now imagine asking those 200 people what they think of the following claim: Every human life has the same value, regardless of skin color, gender, wealth, age, religion, and so on. Presumably, they would all agree. Of course, they would say, it's obvious.

They would also agree that we are not talking about murder here, because neither the influential deniers nor anyone else intends to kill anyone: as I pointed out in my original text:

... the GW deniers would point out straight away that they don't intend to kill anyone. ... The GW deniers are simply of the opinion that the GW scientists are wrong. ... [They are] enjoying their freedom of speech and perhaps they sincerely believe what they are claiming. They can certainly cite lots of evidence (you can find evidence for just about anything if you look hard enough).

But that does not change the fact that we (and especially the influential deniers) are knowingly causing these present and future deaths. If those 200 people were honest (and many are), they would have to agree with that as well.

Are we going to start talking about this? Or do we prefer to keep our heads in the sand? An alien visitor from outer space would be astonished at the difference between what humans say about morality and what they actually do. A million to one! The hypocrisy is truly staggering,

Similar statements

I am unaware of anyone who has estimated the number of deaths that an influential climate denier can cause. If I have missed something, please let me know. However many writers have approached the topic from different directions.

Jean Ziegler has argued that every child who dies of hunger is murdered. While I have the greatest respect and admiration for his courageous and inspiring contribution, I disagree with the use of the word "murder" in this context. There is an important difference between negligence, however extreme, and murder. (The special status of the Holocaust by comparison to other massive crimes involves the premeditated nature of the killing.) But Ziegler is right that most of those dying children (and they are dying right now as I write and you read this — what could be more horrific than that?) could have been saved if we in the rich countries had bothered in the past few decades to create a fair global economic system. In the future, those children will die because right now we are not bothering to stop global warming. I guess an appropriate term for this extreme form of negligence is “indirect killing”. 

Philosopher John Nolt, author of an influential 2015 book on environmental ethics, wrote a paper in 2011 entitled “How Harmful Are the Average American's Greenhouse Gas Emissions?” in which he calculated that the emissions of the average American today are killing one or two future people. It's a leading example of semi-quantitative ethics, and he is surely right.

In her book "Merchants of Doubt", Historian Naomi Oreskes brilliantly documented the actions of past climate deniers. It will be a great day in the history of law and justice when the main culprits are tried according to the evidence that she and others have painstakingly collected. If the trial is fair, they will presumably find themselves behind bars for the rest of their lives.

Activist Naomi Klein has explained how the entire capitalist system has to be changed to avert an unprecedented global disaster. Countless others have contributed to this topic from many angles.

In the past few years, the frequency of news reports that consider the present and future fatal consequences of climate change has been rising. That is a promising development. In an article published in September 2017, Mark Hertsgaard realized that “Climate denialism is literally killing us”. I like this article, but disagree with two points. First Hertsgaard uses the word “murder”, but the climate deniers do not intend to kill anyone. Second, the number of people who will die in the future as a result of today's climate denialism is much higher than his implied estimates. We are talking about hundreds of millions and possibly billions.

My all-time favorite journalist is George Monbiot. A long time ago, in a discussion transcribed and published in May 2007, he said: “If We Don’t Deal with Climate Change We Condemn Hundreds of Millions of People to Death”. The capital letters mean the comment became the title. 

The more people have the courage to talk about this problem directly, the more it will be taken seriously. But we are still a long way from considering the true human consequences of influential climate denial.  It seems that most people are in denial about that — a form of meta-denial. We are living our lives as if this was not happening or as if we didn’t know about it. As if we were innocent.

The bottom line

In closing, allow me to make two main points.

We are talking about a billion human lives. The future victims of global warming are today's children in developing countries. They really exist, right now. They are not "future generations", although of course future generations are also important. The lives of a billion children living right now really will be shortened by global warming, which in plain English means that global warming will kill them, which means our emissions are killing them, which means we are killing them. That these claims follow logically from one another is obvious; the example could be straight from a philosophy textbook. The shocking nature of these statements changes nothing about their truth content (whether they are true is independent of whether they are shocking). If we actively suppress such claims or statements, we are engaging in denial (which also follows logically from the previous statements). But we have known about these causal relationships for several decades, and there has never been a good excuse for denying them.

This is the most important issue in current politics. If we assume that every human life has the same value, and apply risk assessment theory and order-of-magnitude estimates to this problem in a rational way, we see that global warming, upon which everything on this planet depends, is probably more serious that all other comparable problems of global proportions, such as for example the rising wealth gap, the risk of nuclear holocaust, the risk of a genetically manipulated pandemic, loss of biodiversity and holocene extinction (the earth's sixth mass extinction event, this time caused by humans), or the implications of land degradation for future food production. 

It is time for the legal profession, and everyone else, to realise that humans need food and fresh water to survive, and global warming will irreversibly reduce both for a large proportion of the world's growing population. The result willl be the greatest tragedy humanity has every experienced.
It's not too late to prevent this mega-catastrophe, but if we are not careful, it soon will be. The way things are going, we will look back on the 2010s as the decade in which we missed the last opportunity to save ourselves.


Extracts from selected emails 

The following texts were copied verbatim, with permission of the authors, from emails that I received during December 2012 and January 2013. I do not necessarily agree with the details of these statements, even if they generally support my position.

"Your argument regarding the death penalty is an extreme view but I am sympathetic. I was more surprised by how vituperative and ignorant some people have been in response. Good on you for pointing out how research is carried out, the motivation of scientists and the implications for future generations."

"I am always amazed how people, the so-called climate sceptics among them, find it difficult to cope with doubts and uncertainties such as those that you showed in your text. You gave expression to an important moral dilemma: on one hand the refusal to kill, and the freedom of expression, and on the other hand the fact that people make obviously very wrong decisions that affect us all and that you want to stop. And so they pounce on some words, take them out of context and suddenly you seem to advocate a totalitarian view. Ah well..."

" ‘At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.’
--- George Orwell, "Freedom of the Press", unprinted introduction to Animal Farm, first printed, ed. Bernard Crick, Times Literary Supplement, September 15, 1972: p. 1040."

"I am sure you know best, that you haven't done your masterpiece with this article, but your intentions were good and pure. Everybody, who knows you, knows that you are a good and honest man. As your article shows you are also passionate about the future of your children and of whole the mankind."

"I just wanted to let you know that I think it was a really good idea to publish your thoughts on the page of the university. I saw the death penalty as a metapher for "this should have consequences", nothing else…and there are no organizations on the world that caused more pain, deaths and wars than religions. You might have read “god is not great”…I’m really happy someone who a few people listen too has addressed at least one very critical topic."

"Thank you for the interesting article. It's a sad world where you can't even make a logical argument any more..."


Apart from the excerpts from emails, the opinions expressed on this page are the authors' personal opinions.
Suggestions for improving or extending the content are welcome at parncutt@gmx.at.
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